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6.23 pm

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds): The more I look at the scheme, the more I realise that it could be described as the camel that broke the Straw's back because it is nothing less than a disgrace. We know--the prisons Minister, the right hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), has told the House--that it is possible for those sentenced to six months to get out in just six weeks because the scheme means that a prisoner can be released up to two months earlier than would otherwise be the case.

That raises interesting questions on the whole issue of honesty in sentencing. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), the shadow Home Secretary, and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition have been very clear over the past weeks and months about the need for radical reform, so that there is honesty in sentencing. The scheme that is before us makes a bad situation considerably worse.

The figures do not make happy reading. There are some chilling statistics on the period between the introduction of the scheme in January 1999 and 30 April this year. The following number of people have been let out early under the home detention curfew scheme: 53 who were convicted of manslaughter; six who were convicted of attempted murder; a staggering 2,767 who were convicted

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of drug dealing; 20 who were convicted of sex offences; 811 who were convicted of robbery; and 237 who were convicted of violent disorder.

The question that we have must ask is: did the Government intend that? Looking at the record and the comments of the Home Secretary, we are forced to conclude that they did not. He said:

The statistics that I have alluded to make it clear beyond peradventure that he was being economical with the truth when he made that statement. As such, he should apologise to the House for making it.

It is true, as my hon. Friends have said, that Labour acts soft, but talks tough. I am reminded of the comments by the then Home Office Minister, the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Ms Quin), when putting forward the scheme:

However, the facts show that those committing serious crimes--sexual offences, manslaughter, attempted murder--are being let out on the scheme.

The Conservative position is simple and straightforward, as we would expect from this Conservative Front-Bench team. We have common-sense policies. Our common-sense policy on electronic tagging is that it should be used not as a mechanism of early release, but as a form of punishment in its own right. Therefore, we will not have any nonsense about our support for electronic tagging. Where we have suggested that it may be a useful disposal, it is in connection with punishment, not early release.

I often read that great work of fiction, which is worthy of entry into the next Booker prize contest. It is the called the Labour party manifesto 1997. It promised a "battle against drugs" and

We look at that at face value and then see the statistics disclosed under the scheme. As I have reported, that Government initiative has allowed 2,700-plus convicted drug dealers to be let out.

I could go on. In fact, I will. The manifesto said that

Those are warm words from the Labour party, but more than 100 criminals convicted of assaulting our police officers and of resisting arrest have been let out early after serving less than half their sentences. I give another example. The Government talk toughly about toughening sentences for causing death by dangerous driving and they want to increase it to a life tariff. The Minister of State, Home Office, The hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), said that

They do, but they do not expect it from this Government because 126 dangerous drivers who have killed on the roads have been let out early under the scheme.

I am surprised that Ministers show their faces. It is not difficult to understand why their Back Benchers have not bothered to show their faces today. It is an absolute disgrace that they have not been willing to be here.

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Even Millbank has been unwilling to page them and to tell them to come to the House to defend their own Government's policy.

Mr. Fabricant: Does my hon. Friend realise that it is worse than that? Not only are Labour Back Benchers not here now, but only one bothered to take part in what is an important debate.

Mr. Ruffley: Labour Back Benchers are frit and we know why. It is a disgraceful piece of law and order policy and it will be judged as such at the next election by my constituents. In the aftermath of the Tony Martin case, they saw the robustness and clarity of the Conservative party position as articulated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald and the Leader of the Opposition, and the pathetic, lily-livered, duplicitous talk and triple counting by the Government. We even heard Labour rubbish about "more money" for rural constabularies. My Suffolk constabulary has yet to hear any firm details in the wake of the furore that was created on the back of the Tony Martin judgment.

I shall give another example of how the Home Secretary talks about being tough on violent crime. We all read the spin that Labour put into the public domain to soften the bad news when it finally hit us, which is that violent crime has increased and is getting worse under this Government. We know why: fewer police officers and the soft, woolly minded, sandal-wearing policy of Home Office Ministers. They have no claim to be the custodians of proper, tough and effective law and order in this country.

I shall quote another statistic. I hope that the Minister can deal with it--probably not, if experience is anything to go by. The Home Secretary called for tougher sentences for street robbers in the light of the rise in violent crime, but he has let out more than 800 convicted robbers early under the special release scheme.

There is confusion in prisons policy. I am glad that at least one Minister has decided to turn up for this debate; it happens to be the prisons Minister--the right hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng). Perhaps, in his summing up, he will tell us how he will be able to afford the burgeoning prison population. At the end of December 1999, the prison population was 62,060 and the certified normal accommodation--the prison capacity with no overcrowding--was 62,480. Some 17.8 per cent. of those prisoners were on remand. Projections based on those statistics show that the trend is upwards. If the custody rate and sentence length remain at 1999 levels, the projected prison population will be 70,400 by 2007--in the unlikely event that a Labour Government are running law and order then. If the custody rates and sentence lengths increase, the figure is predicted to be as high as 80,300.

The Minister has probably been doing his best with the Treasury to fund Home Office policy, but we want more money for our police, and he should tell us whether he has the money to fund the increase in the prison population. If he has not, the policy is more of a shambles than it first appears.

6.32 pm

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): It is always very interesting to discover what has been going on while a debate has been in progress. It is of particular note that

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we have some more up-to-date figures on the number of people released under the home detention curfew scheme. Those figures were released in a written answer at 3.30 this afternoon to my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington). I shall return to those figures later. It is always a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley), but I have to tell him that the figures are worse than those that he mentions.

In response to an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), the Home Secretary said that the Government would introduce a proposal on the Prime Minister's much vaunted announcement about on-the-spot fines as soon as there was legislative time, but despite that fact, this evening's BBC news reported that No. 10 Downing street is now saying that the idea of on-the-spot fines has been dropped. It has spun off into oblivion, so what price the Home Secretary's response to my hon. Friend now?

I do not think that the Home Secretary has the guts to try to explain away the fact that that policy has spun off into oblivion between 4 o'clock this afternoon and 6 o'clock this evening. What has happened to the policy, which, as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) said, must have puzzled the theologians of Tubingen? It reminds me of the nursery rhyme about Solomon Grundy that we all learned as children. We now find that Labour policy is born on a Friday and buried on a Monday. Undoubtedly, we shall see much more spinning, angels dancing on the point of a pin and the Minister's usual sophistry to try to explain away that policy.

I turn to some of the serious points that have been made. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), the Home Secretary said that he would tell those who sadly and tragically have been the victims of rape committed by someone who was released on home detention curfew that it is "better to manage the transition from custody to the community" of the criminal. Frankly, that is a disgrace. Are the Government concerned about law-abiding citizen or the criminal?

All the Home Secretary's words suggested that the Government are far more concerned about better managing the criminal's transition from custody to the community, but we on this side of the House are more concerned about the law abiding. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) said, the routine of someone who should be serving a custodial sentence in full, but has been released early on home detention curfew, may involve drug dealing from home.

I shall now deal with the figures that were announced in a written answer after the start of the debate. The Government said that they would be

but in which group of offences have the largest number of offenders been released on home detention curfew? We had the figures to the end of April; we now have the figures to the end of May, and drug offenders comprise the largest group. No fewer than 3,480 of those convicted of drugs offences have been released, including 122 offenders whose convictions were for the production of drugs and 1,156 whose offence was the supply of

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drugs--the most serious drugs offence of all. Some 1,476 had been convicted of possession with intent to supply and 462 with possession. No fewer than 222 of those who have been released early have been involved in the unlawful import or export of drugs, so international drug smugglers are being released early.

Home detention curfews are not a sensible alternative. We know that the Government say that they regard that policy as a success, but they should tell that to the victims of the criminals who have been released early. The victims do not accept that; the public will not accept it, and neither will we.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds said, as recently as November 1999, the Home Secretary said:

That was long after the Select Committee report, although the Home Secretary claimed that its members knew all about what the Government had in mind. Of course they did not. As late as last November, long after the report, the Home Secretary told the House that the Government had no plans to apply the scheme to serious or sexual offences.

I shall quote the number of sexual offenders who have been released under the scheme in direct contravention of what the Home Secretary told the House. Nineteen offenders convicted of indecent assault, one of unlawful sexual intercourse and one of buggery have been released. Those figures completely undermine what the Home Secretary said as recently as last November.

I shall deal with one or two of the other contributions to the debate. We agree with the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey about the need for constructive work to be done in prison. He is well aware that Coldingley prison, which is in my constituency, is an extremely good example of a prison where constructive work is done. I know that the Minister has visited it and, while considering legislation in Committee, we have agreed that we want to encourage such prisons, but there is no purpose in releasing people under the scheme and denying them the opportunity to take part in constructive work in prison when their offences should justify a lengthy custodial sentence.

The hon. Gentleman also said that longer sentences do not lessen the risk of reoffending. That may be true, but we on these Benches say that offenders cannot commit offences while they are in custody. He said that there should be fewer headline-grabbing initiatives. Perhaps that applied particularly to the one to which the Prime Minister referred last Friday, which has already been dropped. We need to be concerned about the protection of the public: once sentenced by a judge to a substantial custodial sentence, a person ought to serve that sentence. There should be honesty in sentencing.

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